Around the Corner
The gospel of Christ is for the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15).
For the Whole World
By Steve Lytle
No committed, scripturally-informed believer disagrees with that statement. Yet, in practice, the church does not always prioritize missions.
I’m glad to be part of a movement committed to getting the message of salvation through Jesus Christ to lost people everywhere. I was greatly privileged to serve in the country of Panama for almost 30 years. Several thoughts about reaching the entire world have been going around in my mind for some time.
First, let’s reach people at home (our Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria). The percentage of non-Christian people is rapidly growing in the U.S. as more and more people turn from biblical faith and say they have no religion. Immigration also contributes to the non-Christian population. I see the sovereignty of God in this; He is bringing the nations to us. The difference between Christ-followers and non-believers is greater than before. What an opportunity for the church.
At the same time, we must be aware of the whole world. Consider the number of unreached (populations numbering less than 2% evangelical believers) and unengaged people groups (those with no effort at engaging a specific people group with the gospel). Of the 6,733 unreached people groups in the world, over 3,000 fit into the category of unengaged people groups. No known church planting effort exists among them. This must become or remain a major priority.
We must always remember our marching orders: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (emphasis mine). God’s heart aches for the entire world. “For God so loved the world…” He wants the entire world reached. All the world and every people group must remain our objective.
Much missionary activity—especially short-term trips and significant financial aid—takes place in “responsive” countries, particularly Africa and Latin America. We rejoice at every effort and initiative to reach people in these regions and every part of the world, but we must also learn to distinguish things that differ. Those countries, and others like them, provide easier access and ministry opportunities. Please note: I use the word “easy” in a relative sense. No place is easy to do ministry; it’s a continual spiritual battle anywhere. Our own country presents difficulties in seeking to evangelize, but many places are much more difficult.
Why are some places “easier”?
Overwhelming poverty. It’s possible to make a difference in people’s immediate physical need by alleviating hunger, dealing with infrastructural needs, or addressing societal problems. As the church goes to those places, both genuine and superficial response occurs.
Immigration, tourism, and governmental services function better and/or are more friendly toward the United States and its citizens who visit.
A Christian base. Almost always, African and Latin American countries have an established church. I don’t think we realize the huge difference this makes. Where the church is established and relatively strong and influential, it’s easier to minister, both short term and long term. The likelihood of a bigger response is greater. For instance, an evangelist from the United States—well-known, well-financed, and supported by a team—can go to Latin America or Africa and celebrate a crusade, potentially seeing hundreds respond. That wouldn’t happen in the Muslim world or certain parts of Europe.
I want to be absolutely clear: I am not saying the church should not go to Haiti, Honduras, and similar places. We should go if God opens the door. I’m suggesting we not opt for these and other countries to the exclusion of more difficult places. I have heard people comment we should not be in western Europe because of the resistance to the gospel found there, or in the Muslim world. We have to learn to differentiate between ignorance and hostile opposition. For my part, I am extremely thankful we, as a denomination, work in western Europe and among Muslim peoples. People are coming to Christ, not in huge numbers, but significantly. Breakthrough is looming on the horizon. More Muslims have come to Christ during the past 50 years than in the previous 20 centuries!
Our efforts to reach the nations and their people groups should be based on leading, burden, opportunity, and strategy.
Papua New Guinea: Don Richardson and his wife were a young missionary couple with a divine call. Their sacrificial commitment led them to a primitive village among the Sawi people—a small, stone age, isolated tribal group for whom Jesus died. The result: Peace Child. If you have not read the book or seen the movie telling how a church was miraculously born, please do so. God calls His servants to go and prepares people to receive the gospel.
India: Carlisle Hanna made a lifelong commitment. After he had been in India for a number of years with a moderate amount of fruit, some people said, “It’s time to come home; your work’s done.” He responded, “I came to give my life for India.” Today, around 20,000 Indian believers, pastors, and church planters continue to lead godly lives. The Indian church has crossed borders and started churches in neighboring Bhutan and Nepal. Hanna used humanitarian efforts, relief aid, crop rotation, and other innovative agricultural methods as means to gain credibility and access to the hearts and lives of many people. The hostel ministry has educated and evangelized scores of young men over the years, many of whom now serve as pastors and church leaders.
Burma: Adoniram Judson spent nearly 40 years in Burma (now Myanmar). During those years, he took one furlough home. Seven of his 13 children died, and two of his wives died. He saw no converts for the first six years. Yet he persevered, and a church was born.
Panama: Tom Willey told me his initial task was to break fallow ground and sow seed. Conversions didn’t come for some time. But through the years, many people accepted Christ as Savior. Today, the harvest is brighter than ever. The fact is, some fields are more difficult than others, taking longer to see fruit.
We can be thankful for cross-cultural ministry, most anytime and anywhere. However, we must ensure we serve with missiologically-sound guidelines.
Avoid creating debilitating dependency. Generosity is a good thing, but we must not let it overwhelm the people we want to help. When hearts are moved, money is often given to help. Sometimes, this unwittingly creates other problems. Also, the host culture must be considered. We must be wise in helping.
View partnership, not control, as the goal. I’m convinced we can help, but we must never “take over.” Those we help need to do their part. A missionary to the Muslim world told of a people with whom he worked who loved and respected one particular missionary colleague. Jealous at first, he determined to learn from it. “Why do you love him so much,” he asked. The answer came, “We love him because he let us help him.” When a loved one died in the States, the missionary approached the people he was trying to reach. They, in their poverty, raised money to send him home. So often, missionaries come in as the “educated” ones, the ones with means and expertise, and take over. The work never reaches a partnership or collaborative level.
Know when to leave. On most fields, the time will come for the mission organization to turn the work over to the national church and pull out. IM did this in Panama in 2015 by strategic decision, and it happened through circumstances and missionary attrition in Ivory Coast. In both cases, the national church was ready and has taken over admirably. This doesn’t mean we walk away forever. We continue to send E-TEAMs to Panama, teachers for the Bible Institute, and the Panamanians welcome short-term teams. The Hanna Project has remained active in Ivory Coast, by invitation from the Ivorian church.
We must, in obedience to the Great Commission, take the gospel to the whole world. Ultimately, that means every tribe, nation, people, and people group all over the planet, regardless of language, ethnicity, culture, or religious background. We must do this with commitment, passion, perseverance, and with great wisdom.
About the Writer: Steve Lytle and his wife Judy served IM, Inc. for more than 30 years, as both missionaries in Panama and later in administrative roles for Steve. Judy continues to work part time at IM. Learn more: IMInc.org.